Fiction – paperback; Picador Australia; 464 pages; 2022.
I used to think only two things made girls go wrong, [Sergeant] Armfield says grimly. Men and poverty. Now I know differently. Now I know that some women simply have a streak of evil.
What is a criminal? That’s the big question at the heart of Iris, a voice-driven novel by Fiona Kelly McGregor, which has recently been longlisted for the 2023 Stella Prize.
Based on the real-life story of Iris Eileen Mary Webber (née Shingles), a petty criminal in 1930s Sydney, it’s written in the vernacular of the time and depicts a violent underworld of sleaze, drugs and destitution.
Here, in the Depression-era slums, Iris makes a living through sex work, shoplifting and, later, an elaborate scam in which she defrauds businessmen for “unpaid invoices”. But she also teaches herself the piano accordion and does short stints as a busker.
Her story is told in exacting detail and is based on the public record — court documents, police reports, gaol records, census data, newspaper items and so on. It took the author nine years to write (she published other books in between) and she claims it is a story “suspended between the possible and the probable” — in other words, it’s rooted in fact, but elements have been fictionalised.
A resilient woman
Iris is a terrific character — feisty, determined, quick-thinking and resilient in the face of ongoing hardship — so I can see how McGregor might have been drawn to telling her story.
She grows up in country NSW, gets married to a man she doesn’t much like, finds she can’t fall pregnant to him and eventually, in a pique of rage, shoots him during an argument. From there she goes on the run, and her life takes a dramatic turn when she lands in Sydney and is “rescued” by a woman who runs a “house of ill repute”. With no education, no family support or social welfare to fall back on, Iris must get by as best she can.
And that’s how her life of criminality begins because she has to survive somehow. But does that make her a bad person? McGregor doesn’t cast judgement; she just tells the tale and lets the reader draw their own conclusions.
She depicts Iris as a quick-witted, creative and high-spirited woman, who is kind and has a strong sense of community, often paying off other people’s debts when she has the money to spare. But she lives in a rough, dangerous and deeply misogynistic society. This danger is only heightened when she falls in love with another woman and has to hide her queer identity from the rest of the world. Criminality, it would seem, infects every aspect of her life.
Detained in custody
Iris’s bawdy, defiant story is told in the first person as she awaits trial in Long Bay State Reformatory for Women. Her rich and flavoursome backstory is told in alternate chapters so we know the outcome of her crimes from the beginning — that is, she gets caught and arrested — but we don’t know all the detail until it slowly comes to light. The fun of reading the book is following her journey from innocent country girl to desperate city crim.
Did I like this book? I’m not sure. I feel ambivalent about it. I loved the vernacular voice, the period detail and the descriptions of Depression-era Sydney (the city is like a character in its own right). But the narrative is too long.
And while I understand McGregor is charting Iris’s experiences, the cyclical nature of her life — trying to better herself then resorting to crime to make ends meet, a pattern that keeps repeating over and over — didn’t hold my attention. Another writer might have edited the timeline for dramatic effect, but I guess that wasn’t McGregor’s goal.
Iris has also been reviewed by Lisa at ANZLitLovers and Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘The Suitcase Baby’ by Tanya Bretherton: A riveting true crime story about an impoverished Scottish immigrant convicted of the murder of her three-week-old baby in Sydney in 1923.
‘My Mother, A Serial Killer’ by Hazel Baron and Janet Fife-Yeomans: Another riveting true crime book about an Australian woman who murdered her husband in the 1950s, then killed two other men she knew.
‘Foals Bread’ by Gillian Mears: A novel set in rural NSW in the 1920s and 30s and written in the vernacular of the time about a feisty female who becomes a showjumping champion.
‘Iris’ doesn’t seem to have been published outside of Australia. Try hunting down a copy on bookfinder.com or Book Depository, or order it directly from Australia via the independent bookstore Readings.com.au. Shipping info here.